Innovative Program Closes Gap Between Stormwater and Education

August 31, 2017
For Immediate Release

Innovative Program Closes Gap Between Stormwater and Education

Wynne explains stormwater facilities
Danielle Wynne, ecologist III, Stormwater Planning Division, explains to Mantua elementary school students what a bioretention facility is and how it helps control stormwater runoff.

For the last decade, the Stormwater Planning Division has been working with Fairfax County Public Schools students and teachers on various stormwater science and environmental stewardship programs and projects.  These programs include creating stormwater activity books, hands-on teaching opportunities highlighting aquatic life in streams, and a classroom pollution detection lab called Stream Crime Investigation.

Recently, another opportunity arose with the students and teachers of Mantua Elementary School.  Mantua, like many Fairfax County Public Schools, has several stormwater features to help control and treat stormwater runoff.  One type of stormwater control at the school is a bioretention facility.  Bioretention facilities are depressions in the landscape designed with specially engineered soil to filter pollutants from stormwater runoff.  In addition to the engineered soil, bioretention facilities are planted with native water-tolerant plant species which help absorb excess water and nutrients in stormwater runoff.

During an assessment of the bioretention facilities at the school, the Maintenance and Stormwater Management Division (MSMD) noted that one facility had become overgrown with invasive vegetation and was in need of routine maintenance. Around the same time as the MSMD assessment, Michelle Sullivan, a teacher at Mantua ES, was looking for a project to connect her students to their local watershed.

When ecologists Danielle Wynne and Chris Mueller heard of this issue, they seized the opportunity to work with Mantua educators to roll out an innovative education program combining bioretention maintenance with teaching the students about the science behind this stormwater facility.  "These facilities are usually cleaned and replanted by contractors," said Wynne.  In this instance, Wynne and Mueller coordinated the facility's maintenance with Heather Ambrose and David Alexander of MSMD to clear the site of the invasive vegetation and add new soil media. Wynne continued, "This created a blank canvas for a hands-on educational opportunity for students.

Mueller plants purple coneflower
Chris Mueller, ecologist II, Stormwater Planning Division, shows a few fifth graders how to properly plant the purple coneflower.

Once the facility was cleared and ready for planting, Wynne and Mueller arranged for 90 fifth grade students to replant the facility using 500 plants made up of five species specifically chosen to survive in the wet conditions of the bioretention facility.  In addition to being able to survive in the facility, the selected plants also fit into the FCPS science curriculum.  One species in particular, milkweed, is a host plant for part of the monarch butterfly life cycle, a focus of the second grade science curriculum.

"This was a win-win-win opportunity for FCPS, MSMD and SWPD.  The students planted this facility themselves *and now understand what these facilities are designed to do and how the plants play a role in keeping our streams clean," said Mueller.

The full‐day effort was orchestrated by Sullivan, Mantua's science coordinator who serves as the liaison between teachers and students. "We were out there all day," Sullivan said. "The kids got their hands dirty and really had a wonderful time learning how plants can help clean the environment."

The students learned that they can have a positive impact on the environment, and the teachers saw how to use a stormwater facility to teach about the environment and how such facilities help improve the water quality of our local streams. To further the educational benefits of the bioretention facility, plant identification signs were installed identifying each species planted and listing a few facts about the benefits of the plant.

Since the project's completion, the students have taken turns watering the plants.  Sullivan and the students created a sign-up calendar for watering the plants during the critical two-month establishment period after planting.  The students were so excited to water the plants they planted that they filled the calendar up to the end of the school year!

Not only was this pilot project successful as an educational endeavor while imparting values of environmental stewardship to students and staff, but it also saved the county money on the maintenance of bioretention facilities.  By having students plant and water the bioretention facility instead of a contractor, the county saved thousands of dollars. The participants' enthusiasm and success of the project help illustrate county-wide goals of innovation, empowering communities, environmental stewardship, cost reductions and strengthening connections between FCPS and the county’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

With more than 40 bioretention facilities on FCPS property and an ever-increasing need for stormwater education within schools, Stormwater staff expect this program could become an integral part of the Stormwater Planning Division's ever-expanding education and outreach activities.





Contact: Irene Haske,
Department of Public Works and Environmental Services 
703-324-5821, TTY 711


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